Land-o-Links for 5/19/2009

Michael Jordan Larry Bird McDonalds

It’s been a very long time since a Land-o-Links post, so here you go:

1.  What If I Don’t Want a Big Mac? (Blog-a-Bull) – An entertaining comparison of all of the current Bulls with various McDonald’s menu items.  Truer words have never been spoken about the McRib.  On a related note, there have been some suggestions out there that the Bulls ought to go after Carlos Boozer.  Now, is Boozer a better low post player than anyone else in Chicago at this time?  Yes.  However, is it worth crushing the Bulls’ salary cap space for Boozer and give up the chance to go after either Amare Stoudemire or Chris Bosh? NO, NO, NO, NO, NOOOOOOOO!!!  (If you ask politely, I’ll tell you how I really feel.)

2.  It’s Not You, It’s Jazz and the NBA (ESPN.com) – Paul Shirley examines why some of his friends haven’t been paying attention to the NBA (as judged by a survey of his poker buddies where only 3 of 8 knew all of the teams that had made the playoffs) by presenting an interesting corrollary between pro basketball and jazz, where the improvisation involved in both the game and style of music, making them relatively abstract, might make it difficult to be appreciated by those that haven’t played either.  As someone that did spend most of the first part of my life playing both organized basketball and trombone in jazz bands, I completely understand where he’s coming from, where both forms deal with a base structure but require a lot of improv within them.  There are two problems that I have with Shirley’s argument, though.  First, Shirley implies that part of the issue is that people need to have played basketball and jazz to be fully appreciative of each, but the thing is that a whole lot more people have played basketball in America compared to football and baseball.  Case in point, when was the last time that you’ve seen a pick-up baseball game in the park?  That never happens, yet you’ll find basketball hoops on urban playgrounds, suburban driveways, and rural farmhouses – if anything, it’s the most widely played sport across socioeconomic lines by a significant margin.  Second, I think that the fact that Shirley lives in Kansas City, which doesn’t have an NBA team, has much to do with his friends’ supposed ignorance of the NBA.  If you went to Portland or Salt Lake City, the average sports fan in those places would likely be more hardpressed to name the teams that make the baseball playoffs in any given year simply because they aren’t following baseball all season without having a hometown team to follow.  Frankly, the NFL is probably the only sport where you can use a standard where you can assume that the average sports fan knows where every team might be in the standings.

If I were to apply the “abstract jazz” issue to any sport, it would definitely be hockey.  In basketball, even if a casual sports fan or someone that never watches sports at all doesn’t understand how to run a pick-and-roll or properly box out an opposing player, that person can ultimately watch LeBron James and realize that he’s able to get the ball into a basket at a higher level than the other players on the court.  However, if you watch a hockey game that involves Sidney Crosby, he will make amazing moves that no one else in the world can do yet he’ll fail to score on such moves 9 out of 10 times.  So, it’s very difficult for someone that hasn’t played hockey (please note that everything that I know about hockey moves and formations is based on the 3000 hours that I spent playing EA Sports NHL ’98 back in college) to understand why a certain move or play is impressive or not – the relative lack of scoring in hockey almost de facto makes it abstract.

3. NHL’s Story a Regional One (Sports Media Watch) – Digging a little deeper into hockey, Sports Media Watch notes what most people know already, which is that the NHL has shown an ability to draw fans within its local markets but continues to struggle on the national level.  What drives me insane about Gary Bettman and the NHL’s leadership is that they know that they face a stacked deck compared to the other sports leagues yet make decisions that compound the league’s problems.  Case in point was last Thursday night, where the NHL had two game 7s (Detroit-Anaheim and Boston-Carolina), with each of them featuring a large market Original Six team.  This should have been one of those magical nights of hockey (particularly when the Bruins-Hurricanes game went into overtime) that would have drawn in a plethora of casual fans.  However, in the infinite wisdom of the NHL, the nation would only see the Red Wings-Ducks game in its entirety on Versus and if you wanted to see all of the Bruins-Hurricanes game, you had to shell out $79 for a pay-per-view feed.  If the part of the purpose of the NHL moving to Versus was that the network had a commitment to show more hockey, WTF is the league doing scheduling two game 7s at the same time?!  Meanwhile, the NBA had two game 6s going on that same evening and those games had staggered start times so that they could be a featured doubleheader on ESPN.  Say what you will about David Stern and the NBA, but that entity knows what it’s supposed to be doing on the television front in order to maximize its audience better than anyone else in sports.  It would be great if the NHL could get someone that would take into account the lessons of the NBA… wait a second… Bettman was David Stern’s right-hand man for over a decade prior to being named NHL commissioner?  Jeez – it’s not a good sign if a league would consider Bug Selig to be an upgrade.

4.  Lost, “The Incident”: The Men Behind the Curtain (What’s Alan Watching) – I’ll be putting up a Lost season finale post eventually (since the premiere of its final season won’t be coming until January 2010, meaning there’s time to mull everything over and with all the various storylines, we may need every moment to process it all), but in the meantime, please go over to Alan Sepinwell’s Lost analysis.  It’s a shame that I only stumbled onto Sepinwall’s blog this year since it’s now the first place that I turn to after each Lost episode – he puts up extremely well-written posts even with a short time constraint while the numerous commenters are generally pretty good (which is tough to find with respect to Lost blogs, where one segment of people get way too technical on one end and the other group on the opposite end consists of complete dolts).

And finally…

5.  Annals of Innovation: How David Beats Goliath (The New Yorker) –  While Paul Shirley compares basketball to jazz, Malcolm Gladwell draws a line between how lesser talented basketball teams’ use of the press provides insight into how underdogs are able to win wars.  Fascinating reading as always from Gladwell, who might be unparalleled at this time in terms of non-fiction writing, although I’ll quibble at a technical level with the long-term effectiveness of the press through an entire 48 minute game.  I understand the argument that it’s a disruptive tool that can shake the opposing team.  However, the press is by far the most tiring type of play that you can employ in the game, meaning that a team would need incredibly in-shape athletes to execute it over an entire contest.  Of course, if you had such in-shape athletes, that would mean that you’re a “Goliath” instead of a “David”, which eliminates the efficacy of using that strategy in the first place.  At the same time, once you get to the higher levels of organized basketball, any decent coach can draw up a press break that can often result in a wide-open layup on the other end of the court (since the press, which uses double-teams, will always end up leaving at least one player open).  Still, Gladwell sets forth a great game plan for how an underdog in any walk of life can beat the favorite: disrupt the opponent and take it out of its comfort zone.  The reason why not everyone does this?  Well, that disruption almost always takes a whole lot more hard work than just going through “conventional warfare”.  So, it really does come down to effort.

On tonight’s agenda: Game 2 of Hawks-Wings, Game 1 of Lakers-Nuggets, and, one of my favorite not-on-the-field sports events of the year, the NBA Draft Lottery.  Frank the Tank’s couch is definitely where amazing happens.

(Image from Cavalcade of Awesome)

The Future is Beautiful in Chicago

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I rarely ever write about football trades and free agent signings (the NFL Draft is a different story) because (1) even the most recognizable names on the trade and waiver wires are invariably way past their respective primes, (2) desirable players that are in their primes never get moved since they are either paid so much that they can’t practically be moved due to salary cap issues or are paid so relatively little being on their rookie contracts that they won’t be moved due to how valuable they are in a salary cap world, (3) it’s simply not that much fun to speculate compared to basketball, where one trade can legitimately change the prospects of a franchise (which is why I’m on every viable Bulls trade rumor like white on rice), or baseball, where the lack of salary cap allows for plenty of blockbuster deals both in the offseason and at the trade deadline every year, since adding a single football player outside of a top flight quarterback (who never get traded) is going to be a relatively low impact move when so many other pieces need to be in order for a team (in 99% of the cases, the addition of one football player is a piece that may help but not a cornerstone that single-handedly vaults a team from pretender to contender), and (4) Jerry Angelo and the Bears never seem to be serious players in any type of high impact trade or free agent discussion (in fact, their modus operandi for the past few years has been stockpile draft picks by trading down in the draft or obtain compensatory picks by letting guys like Bernard Berrian move on to other teams).

As a result, I haven’t even bothered to give much thought to the hubbub about Jay Cutler’s apparent fallout with the Broncos’ new head coach, Josh McDaniels. Regardless of how upset Cutler might have been, I couldn’t fathom the prospect of Denver trading away a 25-year quarterback that had already made a Pro Bowl within his first three years – name brand quarterbacks only get traded when they decide to retire, choose to un-retire two months later, and then bitch and moan about not getting his job back when the franchise that has catered to his every whim for nearly two decades decides that it has to move on after being yanked around about retirement plans for over five years. Even if I could have wrapped my mind around the thought that Cutler was truly available, I had absolutely no faith whatsoever that the Bears would offer what it would take to nab a player of that caliber. Early in the morning on April 2nd, I told a co-worker that my feeling was that the Redskins and Daniel Snyder would offer up the team’s first round draft picks for the next ten years (at least the ones that they still have left) plus ownership of any Six Flags theme park in order to get such a huge deal completed and the Bears wouldn’t even bother putting in a viable offer.

So, the fact that the Bears were actually able to nab a 25-year Pro Bowl quarterback was the most shocking transaction that I could ever remember the team (and possibly any franchise in Chicago) completing. After enduring years of that horrific graphic that every television network displayed during every Bears-Packers game with a list of the 87,323 quarterbacks that the Bears have gone through since Brett Favre’s first season with the Packers, there is actually a real quarterback in Chicago. Not only that, this quarterback may very well still be at the helm of this team in 2016 when Chicago hopes to hold the Olympics. (Note that after Mayor Daley spent an enormous amount of time and money to ensure that the visit of the International Olympic Committee evaluators this week would be perfectly coordinated, the news is now dominated by the dual headlines of the Cutler trade and Rod Blagoevich getting indicted.) I’m trying to avoid too much of the Kool-Aid (on the scheme of things, I would still wager that the Bulls landing the rights to draft Derrick Rose last year will end up being the seminal off-the-field Chicago sports moment of this generation), but I continue to be perplexed by that segment of the population that seems to be giving a thumbs down to this trade. Frankly, this reminds of the Bulls fans that began deluding themselves that Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah were becoming the frontcourt version of Michael and Scottie where they couldn’t be given up for a multiple-time All-Star big man in his prime averaging 20/9 over the course of his career. While that trade never went through (and Amare Stoudemire almost lost an eyeball a few days after the trade deadline passed), fans that complained for years that the Bulls needed a top-tier frontcourt scorer all of the sudden became scared of “giving up too much” when a top-tier frontcourt scorer was right in front of them. Likewise, Bears fans have been complaining about their quarterback situation since the Sid Luckman era (he retired in 1950, by the way), yet a sizeable segment of the fanbase inexplicably is criticizing this deal for a variety of knee-jerk (and ultimately illogical) reasons. Let’s connect this situation from one of my favorite scenes from ‘Swingers’, where Rob confronts Mike for being been holed up in his apartment for several days since he continued to be paralyzed by the break-up with his girlfriend:

There are a few lessons from that scene for the Bears fans that aren’t quite on board yet with the Cutler deal. At the top, we have to look at the things that we have as opposed to the things that we don’t have. The Bears traded away Kyle Orton, whose most notable achievements in Chicago were a fantastic neckbeard and a legendary penchant for Chi-town ladies and Jack Daniels straight out of the bottle. I’m not exactly sure what has happened over the last couple of months that has convinced some Bears fans that Orton is a guy that will lead the team to a Super Bowl victory (which is the ultimate goal as opposed to just making the playoffs by winning a mediocre division). Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman might have been the most interesting pair of mediocre quarterbacks in the NFL, but the emphasis needs to be on the fact that they were (and are) mediocre. Jay Cutler, on the other hand, has the ability to be a great quarterback – maybe not at the level of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, but certainly can be in that next category of guys where you can a win a Super Bowl because of him as opposed to in spite of him. In 2008, only Cutler’s third season in the NFL, he passed for 4,526 yards, which is nearly 700 yards more than the Bears all-time single season record. Cutler’s career QB rating of 87.1 (once again, only after three seasons) would rank as the best in Bears history for a career. These are just a couple of the statistical categories where Cutler would already hold Bears all-time records, not to mention that he has already made one Pro Bowl (and I’ll say it once again, this is only after three seasons), which equals the total number of Pro Bowl appearances by Bears quarterbacks since 1963 (the lone appearance being Jim McMahon in 1985).

At the same time, while the Bears gave up a lot in terms of draft picks (first round picks for the next two years and a third round pick this year), there was no chance that any of those draft picks would have yielded a quarterback anywhere near the level of Cutler. This isn’t like the Herschel Walker trade, where the Vikings essentially skipped the NFL Draft for three years straight, or when Mike Ditka traded all of the Saints’ 1999 draft picks for Ricky Williams. A quick look at Bears’ recent and not-too-distant first round draft picks (Cedric Benson, David Terrell, Curtis Enis, Rashaan Salaam, Curtis Conway… urge to kill… rising) should immediately get rid of any hesitancy of Chicago sports fans to skip the first part of draft day this year and next year.

Another area where some Bears fans are bemoaning what they don’t have as opposed looking at what they do have is with respect to the team’s wide receivers (or lack thereof). I’ll agree that the Bears need better wide receivers immediately. However, that doesn’t mean that the Bears shouldn’t have gone out and traded for Cutler. Quite to the contrary, as Dan Bernstein eloquently stated on Friday on WSCR, arguing that the Bears shouldn’t have traded for Cutler because the Bears don’t have good wide receivers is like saying that you don’t want to pick up a million dollars in cash that you’ve won because you don’t own a suitcase. The Bears can still add a competent wide receiver this offseason (either through the use of a second round draft pick or signing a veteran like Torry Holt or Marvin Harrison) and, practically speaking, it’s a whole lot easier (not easy, but easier) trying to find wide receivers than a Pro Bowl quarterback that’s only 25 years old. Don’t forget that the Bears still have Earl Bennett on their roster – last year’s third round draft pick that happened to be Cutler’s favorite wide receiver target in his final year at Vanderbilt. Plus, this “we don’t have wide receivers” lament is suited in the old Bad Rex/Orton world, where the Bears needed wide receivers that could make their quarterbacks better. Now, the Bears actually have a quarterback that can make the team’s wide receivers better (as it should be).

It also seems like some Bears fans have gotten used to the pain of not having a top level quarterback for so long that they can’t handle a living a life without such pain. Every Bears fan under 70 years old (think about that for a second – that’s not hyperbole) has only known a franchise that has had mediocre (at best) or Division I-AA level (Jonathan Quinn, Peter Tom Willis, Moses Moreno, Henry Burris, Will Furrer, Rick Mirer… urge to kill… rising) quarterback play, so I think there’s some of us that will actually miss those Monday mornings after the game where Chicago sports talk radio contains 4 straight hours of censored expletives about the lack of our passing game. So, some of these Bears fans start throwing out some of the aforementioned complaints, or the supposed scarlet letter that “Jay Cutler hasn’t won a playoff game yet” (once again, he’s only been in the league for three seasons). By that short-sighted logic, we should sign Rex Grossman to a lifetime contract since he got us to the Super Bowl. Are we scared of entering a world where we can’t just blame Bears losses on the lack of a QB? Maybe some people can’t handle it, but I’m more than ready to move on.

Finally, this whole situation is absolutely manifest destiny applied to the NFL. Think of the number of crazy events that had to occur in order to set this trade into motion: (1) Tom Brady gets knocked out in the first few minutes of the 2008 season, (2) Matt Cassel steps in cold turkey after being a backup since literally high school (since he got to carry the clipboard behind both Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC) and leads the Patriots to a record that would have landed them in the playoffs almost every other year, (3) Denver doesn’t make the playoffs and Mike Shanahan gets fired after having brought the franchise two Super Bowl victories, (4) the Broncos then hire Josh McDaniels, who coached Cassel as offensive coordinator with the Patriots, (5) Cassel gets the franchise tag placed on him by New England so that he wouldn’t go to free agency and the team could get some value back for him on the trade market, (6) McDaniels does everything other than publicly proclaim Cassel as being perfect for his system and the Broncos try to trade Cutler for him, (7) Cutler really doesn’t like this, (8) Cassel gets traded to the Chiefs, but McDaniels continues to indicate that his special sauce offense is going to be changed around in a way that it goes against all of Cutler’s strengths, (9) Cutler absolutely positively doesn’t like this, (10) Cutler does everything but publicly proclaim that he will never play for McDaniels, (11) for some inexplicable reason, McDaniels doesn’t do everything in his power to calm down a young franchise quarterback that the long-term stability of his coaching job will depend upon, (12) the Broncos are then essentially forced to put Cutler on the trading block, (13) Jerry Angelo has the intestinal fortitude to go against every precedent that his organization has set in terms of high-profile trades and “got in it to win it” as he put it, and (14) the Bears trade for Cutler to get the quarterback that they have never had.

While a number of Bears fans are a bit turned off by Cutler’s apparent negative reaction to criticism (and he’ll certainly need to become thick-skinned immediately to deal with a rabid Chicago media and fan base that can turn on a misguided interception), there aren’t too many good quarterbacks that aren’t prima donnas. I’ll challenge anyone to find a larger prima donna in sports than Brett Favre and, in all probability, the biggest d-bag in your high school class was the quarterback of your football team. It all doesn’t matter if it means legitimate chances to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Chicago.

If anything else, the Sunday night regular season opener between the Bears and Packers at Lambeau Field is going to be a whole lot more interesting both locally and nationally. Let’s say this again because I still can’t quite believe it: the Bears actually have a real quarterback. The future is beautiful, Bears fans.

(Image from Midwest Sports Fans)

Another Day, Another Bulls Trade Rumor

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There were two main choices for topics of today’s post: A-Rod’s positive 2003 steroid test and half-assed admission or unsubstantiated rumors of the Bulls pulling off a trade with the Suns for Amare Stoudemire.  If it took you more than two seconds to figure out which direction I’m going, you must be a newbie.  This blog wouldn’t exist without posts about Bulls rumors that I ruminate on for several hours and then are made obsolete within three days.  (Please see Exhibits A and B.)

On the scale of trade rumors, though, this one is a relative biggie.  There are some knocks on Stoudemire – he’s not a great defender and supposedly he has some attitude issues.  I’ll be the first to say that he’s not a perfect player, but if the Bulls are giving up Tyrus Thomas (the young athletic big man with upside), Drew Gooden (with the magical expiring contract), and Cedric Simmons (another expiring contract) in this situation, John Paxson needs to pull the trigger pronto.  The fact that this trade works on the NBA Trade Machine (which basketball fans understand is the most difficult hurdle to overcome in any trade) almost means that it’s destiny.  Even if the Bulls had to throw in a first round draft pick on top of all of that, I think that they have to do it.

The reasons are pretty simple: 6′ 10″, 26 years old, and career averages of 21 points and 9 rebounds per game over six seasons in the NBA.  Stoudemire is the Bulls large scoring presence (even if he’s not a true post player) that they have been looking for since trading Elton Brand.  It’s incredulous that some Bulls fans are starting to be hesitant on moving Tyrus Thomas since he’s had a good road trip averaging around 15 points per game, but let’s note that this is the very best stretch of basketball that we’ve ever seen him play and it’s still 5 points less per game than Stoudemire’s career average.  I would much rather see Joakim Noah moved (although Steve Kerr knows better) and absolutely love Thomas’ athleticism and potential, yet I have an extremely hard time envisioning him ever becoming close to a 20/10 player.  If John Paxson’s professional analysis yields the same conclusion, I can’t see how he could possibly not move forward with this type of deal.

Players of the caliber of, say, LeBron James or Dwight Howard are rarely (if ever) traded, so Bulls fans that are against Stoudemire coming to Chicago because he has a couple of holes in his game are failing to see the proverbial forest for the trees.  Every guy on the trading block is going to have some issues, but Stoudemire is about as good of a player that you’re going to see get reasonably traded in this day and age.  The Bulls were looking at moving Luol Deng in exchange for Pau Gasol over the past couple of years.   Well, Thomas isn’t nearly as valuable to this team as Deng, while Stoudemire is arguably a more dominant player than Gasol.  Pairing Stoudemire up with Derrick Rose makes the Bulls at least a top 4 team in the Eastern Conference almost immediately.  They wouldn’t beat the Cavs, Magic, or Celtics this year, but I’d take my championship chances two to three years from now when both Rose and Stoudemire are in their prime years at the same time over any combination that the Bulls have on their current roster.  Plus, if the Bulls are still looking to make a legitimate run at one of the marquee 2010 free agents (assuming that they can make the salary cap situation work since Stoudemire himself will demand a max contract), offering a Rose/Stoudemire/Deng nucleus is going to look about as enticing as what any other team could offer.

Don’t dash my Bulls trade dreams for the umpteenth year in a row, Pax.  It’s time to make a move and it looks like the pieces are there where it could legitimately happen.

(Image from All NBA All Basketball)